Korean pop cultural products and their unique impact on foreign audiences’ behavior: Implications for cultural diplomacy
In their attempt to foster the national interest, countries usually seek to understand, inform, and exert influence on foreign audiences. An impactful and commonly used tool for this is cultural diplomacy, which refers to the process of exchanging and raising awareness on cultural aspects such as language, art, ideology, etc. South Korea, whose national brand is closely associated with the phenomenal Hallyu, is believed to have given a masterclass in utilizing cultural diplomacy.
Hallyu (i.e., Korean Wave) is a term coined during the 1980s, meaning the exponential rise in popularity of Korean pop culture. This universal distribution and reception of Korean pop cultural products (e.g., Korean drama, Korean pop music, Korean TV shows, etc.) brought a great reputation to the country per se. Like other successful deployments of cultural diplomacy in nation branding, Korean pop cultural products have encouraged certain behaviors in audiences, including the purchase intention of Korean commodities and visiting the country. According to the ministry, Hallyu is the major reason why foreign tourists choose to visit Korea.
And so, why do I consider this a “masterclass”? It is because the influence these cultural products had on the audiences didn’t stop there: Korean dramas, music, and TV programs were powerful enough to stimulate another very enthusiastic response – learning, practicing, and incorporating Korean culture in daily life.
What does it mean to learn and practice Korean culture? After the consumption of Korean cultural products, audiences assimilate the cultural elements portrayed there. To clarify, they imitate and show traces of the culture in their daily activities. This may include different cultural activities such as cooking and styling, learning and using the language, and adopting Korean people’s lifestyle and habits. According to Duolingo’s 2020 Language Report (an annual report on the most learned languages worldwide by Duolingo, an American language-learning platform), Korean is the second fastest growing language globally. In Indonesia, one of the earliest countries to consume Korean pop cultural products and import Korean culture, a slang word – ke-koreaan (meaning “too Korean”) – was developed to describe people who actively embed Korean culture in their lifestyle. Beside the high quality of Korean cultural products that grab audiences’ attention and stimulate their immersion, I believe it is the producers’ decision to subtly but effectively feature Korea’s interesting, exclusive cultural traits in these products that lead to this response by the audiences.
There are several examples that can further illustrate this phenomenon. The first example is Chi-mac, a “national” food combination including Korean chicken and beer. After its appearance in a Korean broadcast in China, it invited enormous attention of the public. The dish was mentioned in 370 million posts on Weibo, a Chinese social network platform and this food combination was also widely requested by customers in Korean restaurants in China. (Picture: Chi-mac (CNN,2015))
A second example is a Korean pick-up line, which is very familiar to Korean drama fans: "Would you like to have some Ramyeon?". Ramyeon is a dish made of instant noodles – the Korean version of Japanese Ramen. However, for young Korean people, saying this line doesn’t merely mean inviting someone over to “have some Ramyeon”. This line has the same meaning as “Wanna Netflix and chill?”, which means inviting someone over to your place to engage in sexual activities. After appearing in different Korean dramas, it has become familiar to many Korean drama fans. They even imitate this line and discuss it on social media. (Picture: A scene from the Korean drama What is wrong with secretary Kim? (Cosmopolitan, 2020))
A last example I want to bring up is from the very recent Korean hit Netflix series, Squid Game. At the same time when the series became a hit worldwide, the traditional games and food featured in it also received a lot of attention. The Korean traditional sugar candy – Dalgona – has been recreated by countless TikTok users. The other day, when I was sitting by the window in my room in Rotterdam, I also remember seeing the neighbors’ kids playing the traditional Korean Squid Game (Korean: Ojingeo) portrayed in the series: they were having so much fun and even saying the phrases in Korean! (Picture: A scene from Squid Game where the characters are playing Ojingeo (NBC News, 2021))
The fact that these intriguing cultural elements are sprinkled across Hallyu products gives impetus to audiences’ learning and applying process, thereby boosting the efficiency of cultural diplomacy, as well as promoting other industries through entertainment. The nation understands this and shows accelerated efforts in improving the pop cultural content and to prolong the growth of this trillion-dollar industry. The pop cultural content has been increasingly diversified and made accessible throughout the years. Therefore, it is extremely exciting to await what next movements the industry will make, also what accomplishments it will further achieve.